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Oppressed press

Meet film director Sedat Yılmaz

We are publishing this on May 3, World Press Freedom Day

Sedat Yılmaz is a Turkish director who makes political films and openly acknowledges it. Born in Malatya, he arrived in Istanbul when he was only nine months old. After successively having studied engineering and cinema without obtaining a diploma, Yılmaz founded a post-production company providing technical services to the advertising industry with a friend from college. Thanks to this source of income, he manages to finance his film projects.

In addition to the documentary Kelepçe (Handcuffs, 2002) and a short film, Yılmaz has now shot his first feature-length Press which won three awards at the last International Film Festival held in Istanbul in April. The film tells the story of the Özgür Gündem (The Free Agenda) newspaper’s editorial board in Diyarbakır in the early 90s, when a gradually increasing pressure on journalists brought them face to face with a crucial reality. The choice of selecting a foreign title for the film is explained by the word “press” which carries a double meaning in English, referring both to pressure and to the journalism corps. During Özgür Gündem’s two years of existence (1992-1994), 30 of its journalists were murdered.

The film tells the story of the Özgür Gündem newspaper’s editorial board in Diyarbakır in the early 90s, when a gradually increasing pressure on journalists brought them face to face with a crucial reality.

How come you take such an interest in political issues, in your previous works as well as with Press?

The choice to make a political film was obviously not a coincidence. I am a socialist activist — I prefer to define myself as a “socialist” rather than using the term “extreme left” which, in Turkey, has a very negative connotation and broadly means “these bad, evil people.” In other words, the term “extreme left” has become a euphemism for terrorists. In the 90s, I was part of the student movement and participated in several political actions.

How did you get the idea to portray Diyarbakır in the early 90s through life at the small and dissident Gündem editorial board?

I have never lived in eastern Turkey, neither have I ever done journalism. I chose Diyarbakır because the city was subject to emergency laws at that time [The state of emergency related to the conflict between the PKK Kurdish guerilla and the Turkish army was only lifted in 2002]. Diyarbakır is therefore highly representative of all sorts of abuses, violence and crimes taking place in this part of the country. As for the dissident newspaper Gündem, it has a very important place in the history of Turkish press because of the many losses it endured: 30 of its journalists were killed during the conflict.

I am a socialist activist … the term “extreme left” has become a euphemism for terrorists.

I chose to tell this story through journalism because this profession holds natural benefits which I could use to communicate what happened in Diyarbakır in the early 90s. It is a journalist’s job to go through all kinds of information. For example, in order for me to speak of an event, showing the title of an article or news item, or featuring the decryption of an audio cassette was enough. Had I chosen a more conventional scenario, I would not have been able to used all these assets, and I would also have run the risk of too much dispersion. Also, choosing the angle of journalism was a way of avoiding pressure from the government or the military.

What kind of pressure are you referring to?

I am thinking of possible legal attacks from the state because of me using particular pictures. Journalism is a good way to establish some distance from what is described. For instance, the film shows a reporter coming to the editorial office with a photo of soldiers exhibiting trophies: key-rings made out of earlobes that they had cut off of from people’s heads. Had I showed such a scene directly, it would have exposed me more. And, for financial reasons also: the film’s limited budget did not allow me to shoot very expensive things like action and fighting scenes. For all these reasons, journalism imposed itself as a very useful perspective.

What about Gündem, is this a well-known newspaper in Turkey?

Gündem was founded in 1992, 12 years after the 1980 coup d’état. It was then closed in 1994 due to a court decision but reopened this April after the release of the film. It was the first Turkish daily for dissidents, and many from the socialist and Kurdish movements were part of the editorial board. Everyone involved in media and journalism also knows it, but they never talk about it.

Doing journalism in Diyarbakır is a quasi-moral obligation to the people who live there to let their voices be heard and enabling them to talk about their experiences.

Fırat, the main character, is a young boy and handyman in the editorial board who gradually learns how to be a journalist. Why did you choose him as the hero of your film?

Fırat is a typical representative of a certain character: several young boys start, just like him, by distributing newspapers and then later joining the editorial board. Many can identify themselves with that character. Fırat is both everybody and nobody. But, the way he enters journalism has nothing to do with how this profession is exercised in Istanbul. For Fırat, journalism is not a choice of career. He is introduced to this environment thanks to another journalist, Faysal, while his family is experiencing a severe and painful event. Doing journalism in Diyarbakır is a quasi-moral obligation to the people who live there to let their voices be heard and enabling them to talk about their experiences.

You describe the world of journalism with impressive realism. How did you manage to do such a thing?

As I said before, I have never done journalism and have no personal relationship with Gündem. But, in Istanbul, I got acquainted with several weekly socialist newspapers where friends used to work. It is through them that I know the world of journalism. I suppose that Gündem operated quite the same way in Diyarbakır, but all my insights come from the socialist press in Istanbul. I also adapted details that I observed in these socialist papers to the context of Diyarbakır. For me, the Kurdish and the socialist movements are like two children living in the same neighbourhood. Their causes are connected and although they have been educated in different environments, their culture is similar. Furthermore, these dissidents are treated more or less the same in Turkey.

There was no alternative way to do journalism. Publishing a dissident newspaper that described for real what was happening in the region meant risking one’s life.

In the midst of receiving death threats, one of the journalists says in the film that “the truth is bulletproof”. How can you comment on such resistance at any cost?

The kind of journalism that is described in the film is the committed kind. For Gündem’s journalists, what matters is to publish tomorrow’s issue at any cost. This is not to say that such commitment to journalism rates it more important than human life. The purpose is to show what happened in this activist journalistic community in early 90s Diyarbakır. If the journalists in the film managed to do what they did — risking their lives at every moment — it is due to a particular political and social context. Such a commitment is unthinkable for most journalists today. But, at that time and in that region, there was no alternative way to do journalism. Publishing a dissident newspaper that described for real what was happening in the region meant risking one’s life.

In the film, the Gündem journalists actually see themselves as members of the Kurdish movement, thereby accepting the risks inherent to their work although they are not journalists by training. Local journalists working for national newspapers like Hürriyet and Sabah would never be willing to do the same sacrifice. But, for Gündem’s staff, it was only through journalism that the voice of the Kurdish movement and of the people living in Diyarbakır could be heard. Journalism is a designated alternative means of resistance. At that time, it was obviously not enough to follow the national press and official army announcements to know what was happening. Under such conditions, journalism as practiced by Gündem was very much needed and the way in which everyone was told about what happened in the region.

People often tell me that they knew back then that things were happening in the region, but they could not imagine that it was to this extent.

Has the situation of the Turkish press changed today?

Yes, because the situation of Turkish mainstream press depends on the political situation in the country. In the 90s, the state was run by one single leader and there was a set political line that had to be followed. But today, several opinions can be expressed. And these are reflected in the media. Today, one can speak of two major political tendencies (the CHP, the Kemalist movement, and the AKP, the Islamic-conservative party in power) that do not prevent other voices from being heard. But this does not mean that the press is free in Turkey.

The film has met a good reception among both critics and the public. Does this indicate a certain awareness of problems like the lack of press freedom and the Kurdish issue?

The media is well aware of the situation for Gündem and the problems addressed in the film. But, Press contributed to drawing attention to specific things. While everybody in Turkey has an idea of what happened in Diyarbakır in the early 90s, Press has allowed people to realise more clearly exactly what took place. People often tell me that they knew back then that things were happening in the region, but they could not imagine that it was to this extent. In my opinion, creating this sort of awareness is what art should aim at. Press was able to convey that Kurds are not only committed to armed resistance against the Turkish government, but also people like you and me; they laugh, cry, have fun and are afraid just like everyone else.

For me, it is the history of socialism and the socialist idea that counts. This is not a question of being Kurdish or Turkish, but a question of freedom.

Are you considered an activist director in Turkey?

People do not see me as an activist filmmaker but rather as someone who makes political film, and I acknowledge that. As a result of the movie, Kurds often ask me if I see this work as a Kurdish film defending the Kurdish cause. But, when people hear that I am not Kurdish, they change their questions and start asking why I made such a film since I am not Kurdish! For them, anyone who makes this kind of film should necessarily be a Kurd. But, for me, it is the history of socialism and the socialist idea that counts. My ethnicity has nothing to do with it. This is not a question of being Kurdish or Turkish, but a question of freedom. The problems that Kurds face in this country must be resolved in the streets: Turks have to understand Kurds in order to find a solution without taking up arms. In this regard, I hope that my film will help Turks to feel what Kurds live through, and to understand that they are not different from them.

I guess that most questions you get relate to your films as political works, not art projects. Can you tell us a few words about that?

Yes, I am disturbed by the fact that everybody talks about the political aspects of Press but absolutely nothing about its artistic qualities. Regarding the aesthetics of the film, we were sensitive to several aspects. First, as the story in itself is very violent, we tried not to add more violence by opting for a language that plays on heartstrings and pathos. Instead, the movie tries to speak in a quite cold and detached way. There is no music in the film, for example, not even during the closing credits. This way, we chose a style diametrically opposite to what was portrayed in the film and as objective as possible.

Watching the film, we want people to feel the threatening, disturbing atmosphere of Diyarbakır at that time.

But this definitely does not mean that the film is not taking a position. Our goal was not to convey with accuracy what happened in early 90s Diyarbakır but to recreate and communicate the unique atmosphere. We have created a story, but a story based on real events. Watching the film, we want people to feel the threatening, disturbing atmosphere of Diyarbakır at that time. This was all made possible thanks to the acting of the cast, which is very natural. It enabled us to express the realism and authenticity of the situation in the best possible way.

What will you do with the prizes that you have received? Do you have a new film project in mind?

The prizes we have won do not represent a large sum of money. They will not be used to finance my next film but rather to cover the costs of Press. Actually, even with this prize money, it will not be enough. Of course I want to continue making movies, but I do not know how or when. Films like Press are not blockbusters: they do not attract advertisement or sell a lot of tickets. This kind of film does not reach 100,000 spectators. But, as long as I can make money out of my post-production company, I will continue making films. I have already an idea for a film about the September 12, 1980 military coup d’état in Turkey.

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